Troy Litten

11/21/14

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Travel passes from Troy’s first trips abroad

If you have been reading my blog for any amount of time here, you may remember my friend Troy Litten. I’ve written about Troy before (almost a year ago to the day, as a matter of fact!) and his various projects and you may have even met him at one of my art openings (he’s a devoted friend). When we became friends, Troy and I instantly bonded over our love for travel, for design and for collecting old stuff. I finally had the chance to sit down with Troy and interview him for my Interviews with People I Admire series, and I was so excited, because Troy is one of the most interesting and talented people I have ever met. For most of his adult life, Troy has traveled the world more frequently than most of us, and early on — before the internet or Instagram  — he began documenting his travels in ways that have now become iconic. For many years Troy made his living as a designer, but along the way has dedicated hours and hours to his greatest passion: travel and photography. He now makes his living using his stockpile of images to create beautiful products — games, home decor, and stationery to name a few.

I sat down to ask Troy about how his obsession with travel and documenting began, where it has taken him, and a little bit about how his mind works. This is the longest interview I’ve ever published, and it’s filled with gems (including incredible images) from start to finish. Enjoy!

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Lisa: You’ve been traveling most of your adult life, and you are now in your late forties. How old were you when you became interested in traveling the world? What was your first trip out of the country and what do you remember about it? At what point did you begin the style of documenting your travels that you have become known for?

Troy: Hailing from the rather rarefied confines of Northwest Ohio, I didn’t experience much of the world outside my immediate existence (the family road trip to Disney World doesn’t count) until I backpacked around Western Europe during the summer of 1987 while in college, the definitive start of my interest in traveling the world. Among many memories are discovering my love of watching the world pass by from a speeding train, surviving on bread and cheese, realizing not everyone speaks English, youth hostel co-ed showers are a thing, meeting people my age from all over the world, replacing a stolen passport is a pain in the ass, spending nights in train stations awaiting the first train out, Europe is full of old stuff and American tourists, and that I wanted to see much, much more of the world.

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Pre-flight entertainment on Bangkok Airways, 1998

After graduating design school in 1989 I lived and worked in London for a few years and in 1992 set out for a six month trip with my friend Grit, starting in Berlin and traveling through Poland, The Baltics, Finland, Russia, China, Nepal, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Afterwards I worked in Hong Kong for a while before returning to the US, first to New York then to San Francisco a few years later, continuing to travel and see the world at every opportunity.

Throughout my travels I was finding so much of interest to document, and my love of sharing what I was seeing of the world around me inspired me to begin creating postcards and mail art to share with friends and family. This was the beginning of my style of documenting my travels I’ve become known for.

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Hand-made postcard featuring Japanese street characters, created after Troy’s first trip to Tokyo in 1997

Lisa: Back in 2005 you published your first travel book called “Wanderlust” (of which I proudly have first edition copy!). In it you documented your travels through unconventional photos of regular things like signage, airline food, cheap hotel beds, train tickets and rotary telephones. This kind of collecting and documenting of the “mundane” has become popular in the last ten years but you were one of the first (if not the first) to share it widely. How did people react to your style of photography and documentation ten years ago compared to how they react today? What has changed?

Troy: Wanting to make something with all the photos and ephemera I’d collected on my travels, I created my first book proposal, titled “One-Way Non-Stop Hello Kitty”, in 1998. Two years later my somewhat more realistic proposal for an engagement calendar caught the eye of my first editor at Chronicle Books and “Wanderlust” was born. A set of 30 postcards and four journals were quickly followed by an address book (with images of public telephones from around the world), a travel journal, an engagement calendar, and in 2005 the “Wanderlust” book.

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Fueled by an appreciation of and fascination for all forms of visual culture, communication, and expression, Troy travels the world documenting hisexperiences and adventures. The result is “Wanderlust”, Troy’s series of travel-themed books, journals, postcards, notecards, and more.

I’ve continued to add to the “Wanderlust” series ever since, a total of 18 titles in 12 years, with the most recent being the “Skulls” and “Streets” journals published last year.

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Wanderlust “Skulls” and “Streets” journals

Through a unique presentation of travel photos, ephemera, and design, “Wanderlust” created a travel experience that anyone who’s ever traveled could relate to by focusing on the commonplace experiences (or “mundane”) such as trying to sleep on an airplanes, waking up in nondescript hotel rooms, ordering meals in foreign countries, finding your way around a new city, the people you meet along the way, and the souvenirs and mementos you return home with. As one reviewer at the time put it, “Wanderlust” “…created one of the most realistic accounts of the beauty, adventure, frustration, boredom and wonder of travel.”.

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Spreads from “Wanderlust”

I believe the premise of my work—that the joy of travel isn’t about getting there, but about all the fun you can have along the way—is as relevant now as it was when the book was published, as is my style of photography, documentation, and design. Now of course with camera phones and social media there are many more people documenting and sharing their daily lives and travels through photos, although I find an intriguing narrative, and the discipline to combine photos into a story to arrive at engaging universal experiences, is often lacking (I’m trying really hard not to use the word over-sharing).

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Troy’s morning travel ritual: cups of coffee from around the world, print available in his Etsy shop

Lisa: Do you know where your obsession with the “mundane” or “ugly beautiful” (as I like to call it) comes from? When did it begin for you? What role does the idea of obsolescence have in your work or how you think about your work?

Troy: I consider myself a bit of a loner/outsider/introvert and often tend to prefer observation to participation when I travel. Being instinctively drawn to the details around me that get overlooked or ignored or are thought of as inconsequential/unimportant/unappealing (the “mundane” or “ugly beautiful”), I find I can enjoy, appreciate, or simply find humor in just about anything (from cheap hotel rooms to bad meals to extended airport delays), which really comes in handy when I find myself in unfamiliar environments and situations. As Paul Theroux (one of my favorite travel writers) said, “Travel is only glamorous in retrospect.”

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Off the beaten track in Tokyo, 1997

Last year I found myself traveling to a very different place when I spent two weeks in ICU at hospital with my Mom. I found myself drawn to documenting the unfamiliar and rather scary surroundings—the beeping machines and high-tech medical equipment, antiseptic hallways and waiting rooms, the signage and seriousness of it all—in an attempt to understand my thoughts, emotions, and fears. Sharing this experience through the photos I posted on Instagram and the interactions with my followers really helped me cope with the situation and taught me a lot about the importance of the visual world around me and the impact it has on me, wherever I may find myself.

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Instagramming from the ICU, 2013

The idea of obsolescence in my work is something I’m increasingly thinking about. Many of the places I’ve visited over the years have seen dramatic changes in the visual landscape and more and more of what I’ve documented no longer exists. For example, I’ve always loved old neon signage and have a large collection I shot throughout Eastern Europe in the 1990s, much of which no longer exists. And my collection of public telephones from around the world, now a mostly irrelevant technology, I consider important as historical documentation of a moment in time fast disappearing.
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Illuminating Eastern European neon signage circa 1990s

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Public telephones from around the world, print available in Troy’s Etsy shop

Lisa: You also have an obsession with Eastern Europe. Tell us about what appeals to you about that region of the world, visually and otherwise.

Troy: I first visited Eastern Europe in the early 90s while living in London. The Berlin Wall had just come down so I visited my friend Grit in Berlin and we spent all our time exploring East Berlin on bicycles. I also visited Prague at this time, which was just beginning to dust itself off.

What first struck me about this part of the world was the “time warp” feeling, and my realization that it won’t last, that the things that made it interesting to me would not survive the approaching wave of westernization and standardization, the papering over of the beauty I found with Coca Cola and Marlboro billboards and glitzy marketing and advertising (such as you can now find on the sides of the trundling old-school trams). The no-frills graphic and product design, utilitarian architecture, and quaint signage—often naive, flimsy, unadorned, poorly printed/constructed, out-of-date—were by virtue of their flaws touchingly human and original and like nothing I’d seen throughout my travels thus far.

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Colorful Ladas, Skodas, Trabis, and more on the streets of Eastern Europe

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Earth tones and extra hard bristles, the only toothbrushes available at the central department store in Prague in 1991

Over the last 20+ years I’ve visited Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, The Czech Republic, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus, Georgia, and Armenia. This past summer I returned to Eastern Europe, sharing my travels via daily posts on Instagram (@troylitten, #trippingwithtroy_europe2014). Although much has changed, I still find this part of the world inspiring and love documenting what remains from the past era as well as the changes I see.

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Instragamming Eastern Europe, 2014

Lisa: You are also an avid collector of the things you find on your travels. What are some of your favorite collections? What are some of the weirdest?

Troy: Yes, I’m a bit of a hoarder when it comes to collecting things I find on my travels. This harks back to my approach to finding beauty in the details of a journey and how every interaction with a place, including the things you find along the way, contributes to a better understanding and appreciation of the experience. Buying packaging in the shops, scouring the sidewalks and gutters for discarded pieces of paper, collecting airmail stamps at post offices, searching out vintage postcards, and collecting old stuff at flea markets are an integral part of my everyday life on the road. Many an old rotary phone has returned home with me in the bottom of my backpack.

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Vintage rotary phones at a Minsk flea market, the blue beauty hitched a ride home with Troy

One of my favorite travel collections are the scrapbooks and journals I filled during my trip around the world in 1992. The China chapter of my scrapbook reminds me of evenings spent emptying my pockets of tickets and bits of paper in dimly lit hotel rooms, removing labels from stuff I’d bought, and drinking warm local beer while documenting the day’s treasures and adventures.

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Traveling China with a blank book and a gluestick, 1992

I’m fascinated with travel tickets and collect them everywhere I go. It’s unfortunately getting harder and harder to find unique tickets due to the increasing modernization and standardization of transport systems the world over.
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Calcutta bus tickets printed on reused bits of paper, 2001

My collection of cigarette packaging from around the world is an interesting comment on the choice of English brand names for foreign products, and the often humorous and inappropriate results.

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Light up a “Stewardess”? Drag on a “Disco”? A pack of “Yak”?

I also consider my photo series as collections (you were the first to point this out!) and I have many series I’ve been documenting for years—from figure signage to “You Are Here” signs, cheap accommodation, train/subway/bus travel, markets, post boxes, and wall murals—that I add to whenever I visit a new place. One of my favorite photo collections is hand-drawn signage.

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Markets + hand-drawn signage = happiness

When I travel I’m always on the lookout for details that capture something about the culture of the place I’m visiting, such as my series of photos of buzzers and bells at the entrances to buildings in Istanbul. The colors, conditions, and often rather shoddy workmanship are one of my favorite impressions of wandering the streets of such an ancient, crowded, disheveled, and amazing city.

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Istanbul buzzers and bells, print available in Troy’s Etsy shop

As for my weirdest collections I must admit I photograph the colorful splash guards in public urinals and can’t quite bring myself to throw away the lint I rescue from my clothes dryer after every load. Don’t ask why.

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A pile of dryer lint

Lisa: You and I share a love for images of ordinary things arranged neatly on a grid. Why is this so appealing to us?

Troy: I blame (and thank!) my love of things arranged on a grid on my Swiss-influenced design school education. Order, color, form, composition—basic design principles that I learned in school and honed throughout the years—still very much frame my approach to both my professional work as a graphic designer and my personal work. I’m always searching for structure in the world around me and aim to compose images that make sense to me visually and satisfy some inherent urge to understand, rationalize, and control my environment. I believe this is a discipline we both share, albeit arrived at through different educational and professional practices and personal experiences.

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T-shirts organized by color at Troy’s favorite Ohio thrift store, 2013

Arranging ordinary things neatly on a grid (a “Troygrid” in Troyspeak) is also for me a way to present my photos in a straightforward manner that allows for easy comparing and contrasting. I also think that utilizing grids to present similar images can result in an impression of a particular thing, place, or experience that one single photograph can’t quite capture.

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Groovy Shanghai tour buses, 2007

Lisa: What is a favorite place you’ve visited and why?

Troy: I may be interpreting your question a bit differently than intended, my favorite place I’ve visited is a place I can visit over and over again regardless of where I am, the place between departure and arrival. Traveling by air—above the earth and suspended in the sky—inspires me to contemplate where I’m coming from and where I’m going as I leave one place behind and anticipate the adventures that await upon arrival. It never ceases to amaze me that I can board a plane in one place and 12 hours later find myself on the other side of the world.

And ever since traveling overland from Berlin to Hong Kong in 1992 (including seven days on the Transiberian from Moscow to Beijing) I’ve loved traveling by train, watching the landscape speed by, observing and meeting other passengers, and moving deeper and deeper into the unknown.

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Troy’s seatmates on the train to Jaipur, India, 2001

Lisa: What are some of your recent travel-related projects?

Troy: My first puzzle, “Transit Graphics”, was published by Galison this past spring. The artwork is a collage of drawings of travel signage I’ve documented throughout my travels and I’ve really enjoyed sharing my love of signage through this new format. “Muchos Autos”, my next puzzle with Galison, will be published early next year and features photos of cars on the colorful streets of Latin America.

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“Transit Graphics 1000 Piece Puzzle” available at galison.com and other fine retailers

This year I’ve begun exhibiting my work in gallery shows around the country, including Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek CA, Kiernan Gallery in Lexington VA, and Black Box Gallery in Portland OR.

Next year The Art Group in the UK, one of the world’s leading art publishers, will be releasing four of my pieces as fine art prints and canvas wall art. My favorites are “Air Mail”, a collection of air mail stamps and stickers from around the world, and “Late Night TV” featuring photos of TV screens with off-air test patterns and graphics from various locales including Japan, Hungary, China, Spain, and Morocco.

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“Air Mail” and “Late Night TV” fine art prints soon to be published by The Art Group

Lisa: What are you currently working on and what are some of your dream projects?

Troy: I’m currently doing some thinking outside the grid and exploring ways to combine the photos and graphics I collect to capture a sense of place through unexpected juxtapositions and arrangements, such as combinations of photos of distressed wall surfaces and drawings of graphic motifs documented while exploring Istanbul.

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Impressions of Istanbul, 2013

Some projects I’m working on a bit closer to home are documenting the garages of San Francisco (where it’s nigh impossible to find a parking space) and a typographic homage to the San Francisco street corner. Street names in SF are stamped into the concrete at street corners, and the impact of the natural and man-made environment on the letter forms—leaves and flowers from the many trees, trash and cigarette butts, moss, broken car window glass—captures for me the unique beauty and grit of the city.

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The garages of San Francisco

I’ve also begun to explore drawing as a new medium through which to share my collections and my love of things like signage, ephemera, and even hardware stores (one of my favorite places to browse). And it’s also nice to spend some time away from the computer for a change.

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Drawings of stop signs from Troy’s photo archive

A current dream project is creating a book of impressions of Eastern Europe in the 1990s through photographs, ephemera, and writings in collaboration with two good friends and travel companions, Grit and Sean, who have also traveled extensively through Eastern Europe and share my appreciation for the visual aesthetic and historical importance of this unique time and place.

I would love to curate/create an immersive gallery exhibition that explores our connection with travel and the world around us through the presentation of common travel experiences utilizing both still and interactive elements that allow viewers to react with the content, share their experiences, and respond to the experiences of others. I also hope to continue to find new ways to share my love of travel and design through new publishing formats, editorial endeavors, and surface and product design applications of my photographs and drawings.

And of course keep traveling.

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Troy’s trusty travel companion, 22 years and still going strong

Visit Troy’s website & blog here and his Etsy shop here. And don’t forget to follow him on Instagram. You will not be disappointed!

Thank you, Troy, for sharing this incredible interview and your beautiful images with us!

Have a great weekend, friends!

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Danielle Krysa, aka The Jealous Curator

11/05/14

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{*Rosa’s Garden, 16″x20″, above, left (detail, right) from Danielle’s new collection of work, featured today as part of this interview. Scroll down to the bottom of the post for more information about this collage series.}

On January 10, 2010 I first became acquainted with someone who has become a really important person in my world: Danielle Krysa. At the time, I mostly knew her as The Jealous Curator, and we “met” because she wrote to me to let me know that she’d written about my then brand new Collection a Day project. She was, incidentally, one of the first people to write about my project — she wrote about it just 10 days after I began (the project lasted a year and was written about later by extensively by magazines, bloggers and newspapers). Anyhow, fast forward a couple of months and we had more contact, and then she began including some of my artwork in her blog, and then again featured my work on her blog the following year when I had my first major solo show in 2011. Our friendship was solidified in 2012 when she asked me to host a San Francisco Girl Crush party in my studio, an event where women signed up to come to my studio and spend the day eating and talking about the creative process. Danielle came to San Francisco from Vancouver to help organize and set up the event, which was a really fantastic (and led to many lasting relationships among the women in the room that day). At that party Danielle met an editor from Chronicle who was also in attendance — and since then has made two beautiful books with the publisher, Creative Block and Collage. I am so honored to be part of both of those books. And so happy the kismet of that event has led to so many amazing opportunities and friendships for both of us.

What most people know about Danielle is that she writes a popular blog called The Jealous Curator. Through her blog, Danielle shares the work of artists she admires (er, is jealous of…more on that in a second). Danielle has, four years after starting her blog, become a really important voice in sharing the work of emerging and newly established artists from around the world with thousands of people who read her blog everyday.

What’s interesting is that Danielle launched The Jealous Curator in February 2009 as a place to show artwork that “made her jealous in a bad, toxic, soul-crushing way,” she says. “I was literally getting stopped in my tracks every time I saw work that I loved. It was awful.” But luckily for Danielle she worked through all of that, and five years later, that ‘jealousy’ she says “has turned magically, wonderfully, and thankfully into inspiration.”

And that’s a good thing, because what most people don’t know about Danielle is that she’s also an artist — a really, really talented artist. And she’s recently begun making a brand new body of work after a hiatus. Danielle’s journey as both an artist and a blogger is the focus of my interview. This interview is part of  my Interviews with People I Admire series here on Today is Going to be Awesome.

Without further ado, let’s get this interview with Danielle started!

Lisa: You are a designer and an artist, and you are obviously quite passionate about art in general and the work of other artists. I imagine at some points (maybe even daily) you spend more time writing about other people’s work on your popular blog than you do making your own work. How does writing about art (especially the work of artists you admire) both hinder and help your own creative process? What have you learned about how to manage all of that since you started your blog in 2009?

Danielle: In the beginning, finding art that I loved really hindered my own work. I was discovering amazing, inspiring, fantastic work every single day, and it felt like everything had been done in every color, and all of it was so much better than anything I could ever make (or so I told myself). But as time went by, and my bookmarks list grew, I realized something very important. It dawned on me that the world is a pretty big place, and there is in fact enough room for anyone that wants to create. Sure, your work might not suit every gallery, or every homeowner’s wall, but there will be a place for it. So make it! And now I do. Here’s a strange little tidbit for you though. Whenever I finish a piece I’ll look at it and think “would the Jealous Curator write about this?” If the answer is “no” I keep playing. Weird?

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Lisa: Not necessarily weird, but really interesting! Let’s talk more about that. Recently you’ve reignited your studio practice. What prompted that for you?

Danielle: For years I’ve been telling myself: “Oh, I’m too busy with The Jealous Curator to think about my own art,” but it wasn’t until I started working on my book, Creative Block, that I realized I was totally using that as an excuse to chicken out. Before the book even hit shelves, I started trying the unblocking projects that the artists had given at the end of their interviews. They’re all so good! That got me started, but what really motivated me were all of the conversations I was having with my readers at book signing events AFTER the book came out. All of these people were really putting themselves out there. Pushing through blocks and trying new things “thanks to Creative Block.” I was so inspired by all of them, and I realized it was time to put that whole “practice what you preach” thing into action.

Lisa:  Tell us about the work you are making now. What have you learned, if anything, since you began making more of your own work again?

Danielle: Oh, this is a long answer so I apologize now. Ready? I was a painting major in University. Right before I graduated I had a terrible professor tell me (in the middle of a huge, humiliating critique in front of my classmates) that I should “never paint again.” And I believed him, I guess, because I haven’t painted in 19 years. I didn’t stop making art, but I switched to collage because it was easy and fun and totally didn’t count as art in my mind, because it was easy and fun. Anyway, in June of this year I decided to face my fears head on (practice/preach thing again) and start painting. It was awful. It was not fun. I kept trying, but found myself wandering off to the thrift shop to look for good collage material. I realized I was excited to make collages, and so I wondered, why wasn’t I just doing that? Because it was too easy and too fun.

Then my second book,  Collage, hit shelves in September. I got dozens of emails from painters and photographers saying “Oh, I love collage, but I’m not very good at it. It’s so hard!” What? It’s not hard. It’s easy and fun and not real art… right? A week or two later I was having coffee with an artist in Vancouver, and was telling her the story about the terrible painting critique when I was in university. She asked what the work looked like, and so I described it. “Oh, I was cutting pieces of the canvas out, sewing them back on, gluing pieces of textures paper over it, etc.” She stared blankly, paused and said… “So you mean, collage.” Holy crap. I’d been a collage artist for 19 years and had no idea! A-ha!!!! I have never felt so free, and so excited about making art.

My name is Danielle, and I am a collage artist. Bam!
Sorry. Longest answer ever, but I just had to share.

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Lisa: I love that story so much!!! What is it about collage that you are so drawn to? Both in your own work and in other people’s work?

Danielle: It probably stems from the fact that I’m a graphic designer by day. I love bold/graphic images, and strong composition, and a good collage has both. I also think it’s really exciting when an existing image is given a whole new purpose, and a brand new story, especially when the new narrative has a bit of a wink or cleverness to it.

Lisa: What is your favorite part of your own creative process, the part that is the most exciting to you?

Danielle: It’s all about found images for me. I could spend hours in thrift shops looking through old books. Once I’ve found “the perfect pages” I run home as fast as I can, and then spend hours (literally) cutting and cutting and cutting. At that stage they’re just funny/random clipped images, but very soon they’ll be assembled into a new story that never would have existed anywhere else had I not found them, snipped them, and glued them together. That is very exciting to me!

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Lisa: You published a book with Chronicle Books called Creative Block where you talk to successful artists about their own creative blocks. Why is it important to talk openly about creative blocks? What do you hope people get out of the book?

Danielle: It’s funny how rarely people actually talk about blocks. And you almost never hear people admit that they have inner-critics and self doubt, but everyone does. I think talking about it just makes all of us realize that we’re not alone. As I got the interviews for the book back from artists, I was so relieved to read that even very accomplished, successful artists doubt themselves from time to time. I want people to read the book and know that if they’re feeling stuck or insecure that they shouldn’t give up. They’re part of something bigger: a huge, supportive, like-minded community of creative people who also get stuck sometimes. I want them to do all of the unblocking projects, and I want them to have fun making, because there’s nothing more satisfying to a creative person than making something you love!

Lisa: How do you work through your own creative blocks?

Danielle: Slowly. But they don’t stop me any more. I’ve learned that blocks are just part of the deal when you’re a creative person. I take a breath, realize it’s not the end of the world, and just keep playing around in the studio. There is a quote in the book that I love, by Laura McKellar (an artist from Australia). She said “You should never stop experimenting. That is how you become a genius.” I love that and totally believe it! Playing, failing, experimenting: those are the keys to finding your way out of a block, and the direct route to stronger work.

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Lisa: You write about and promote at the work of other artists every day. Tell us a story about a time when a post you wrote about another artist led to something really cool.

Danielle: Yes! This is absolutely my most favorite part of having The Jealous Curator. Here’s a story that just happened this past spring. An American painter named Anna Jensen sent me a link to her work and I loved it and wrote about it right away. Literally the day after I wrote about her, I got an email from a gallery in Paris. They had seen the post and asked if I could connect them to Anna, as they wanted to give her a solo show… IN PARIS?! So, I e-introduced them and off they went! But that’s not the end of the story. Anna set up a Kickstarter project because she couldn’t afford to get herself, and all of her paintings, to Paris. She had raised a bit of money, but not quite enough, so I wrote another post asking my readers to help get Anna to France, and they did, (and then some)! Her show opened in July and, boy oh boy, I wish I’d been there with her. It was so, so, so exciting!

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Thank you, Danielle, for sharing your story with us! And for sharing your own work and the work of other artists with the world everyday. Thank you also for your beautiful books. You make the world a better place.

{*About Danielle’s work, pictured throughout this post, in Danielle’s own words: This series is called “Rosa’s Garden” and each piece is named after a rose. My great grandmother’s name was Rosa and she lived in a little mint house with lots of roses in the garden. She also lived through the roaring 20’s and had a bit of an edge to her. Yet another reason to love her! These pieces all started with hours and hours of cutting out roses, all the while thinking of her and my grandmother and her daughter, Blanche. The other bits and pieces (including an image of the house I lived in when I was little) found their way into this ode to the women in my family.}

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Jennifer Orkin Lewis

09/04/14

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You may recall that last year — about one year ago, to be exact — I did the first in a new series on my blog called Interviews with People I Admire. I posted one more interview the following month, and then POOF! No more. You know how these things go, don’t you? You have a great idea and then somehow life gets in the way? Well, I’m back at it, and I’ve decided to pick this series up again, this time in earnest. And so today I present to you Jennifer Orkin Lewis, otherwise known as Augustwren.

This series is really about people who are doing (making, painting, writing, designing, drawing) things that I think are super cool. And Jennifer Orkin Lewis is doing something really cool. She has a sketchbook project which is really unique and pretty much blows my socks off most days. I discovered her work (and her sketchbook) several months back on Instagram, and I am so glad it happened.

Jennifer is an artist and illustrator who lives outside New York City, and last year in 2013 she decided to paint in her sketchbook every day for the month of April. That project eventually led to painting in her sketchbook every day, with a few self imposed parameters (more about those in our interview). You know how I love a good daily project, right? Well Jennifer’s is destined to become legendary if she keeps it up. I’ve since befriended Jennifer on the Internet, and I’ve also found her to be incredibly kind and humble (two qualities I also admire); and I’m also excited to meet her when I am in New York City in a couple of weeks. Now for our interview!

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Lisa: Jennifer, I discovered your work on Instagram, and then the following day I saw your work in Uppercase Magazine. You post daily photos of paintings you make in your sketch book, which are so beautiful, by the way! I am so impressed by your discipline and the diversity of what you paint. How and when did this daily practice begin for you? Was it intentional (like you got up one day and decided to start painting in a blank book every day) or something that evolved more organically over time?

Jennifer: Thank you so much, Lisa, I’m so honored to be interviewed by you! I actually have wanted to do a daily project for many years but never quite figured out what that project would be. In April 2013, I decided to do a painting a day for the month. I didn’t put any restrictions on myself and I ended up spending hours each day on them. I finished out the month, but it was stressful. In May I did it again but my rules were that I would limit it to 1 hour and I would only paint food. I finished that challenge as well but I felt too tied down to that theme and I didn’t experiment enough. I picked up the sketchbook I’m using now last October and I started painting in it. Something clicked and I really liked how the paint went onto the paper, its size, the fact that it wasn’t a gorgeous sketchbook. I kept painting in it so when January came it just flowed that this would be my daily project. I decided to post them all on Instagram to hold myself accountable to painting everyday.

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Lisa: Since you began your daily paintings, how has your art practice changed? What do the daily paintings do for your creative practice and discipline?

Jennifer: I’ve definitely gained confidence, just knowing I can get up every day and produce something new. I’ve never really thought of myself as particularly disciplined, so I have surprised myself. I have loads of 1/2 finished sketchbooks on my shelves.  A great result from the practice is I now have hundreds of pages of personal reference material. I’ve gone into it to look for color combinations for projects, for the shape of a flower,  a technique.
I also have to say that all the amazing followers on Instagram and Facebook have been totally encouraging and that helps me keep the discipline up.

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Lisa: How long do they normally take? How much time do you spend each day painting in your sketchbooks? How many books have you painted in so far?

Jennifer: It is a 30 minute painting daily. That said, when I start the 30 minutes I usually know what I’m painting, my paints are out and ready and I’ve done a really quick pencil sketch.  (3 minutes tops) I usually finish the page in 20-30 minutes, using a timer. When it goes off I’m finished no matter how done I think it is. This is the first sketchbook I’ve ever even come close to finishing. I don’t ever want to stop now, I’m making up for lost time!

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Lisa:  I am so intrigued by your subject matter, and I love how sometimes you share next to your sketchbook what you used for reference. How do you decide what to paint each day?

Jennifer: This is by far the hardest part. Sometimes I wake up knowing exactly what I’m going to paint, a bouquet of flowers I just bought, a self portrait, a stylized face, bugs. It could be anything. Sometimes I sit down and pull out a book that inspires me and I look at it for a little while and I get an idea that feels right. I might pull out an old photo or a post card of a piece of art and I’m inspired to paint from that. I definitely have days though where I feel like I’ll never come up with an idea. Then I might pick 2 or 3 oddball colors and just paint flowers. The worst days are the ones where I feel I’m making a mess and I’m frustrated the whole time. I really look at the sketchbook as a place to experiment. It’s not meant to be perfect so I try not to worry about it too much.

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Lisa: In addition to sharing your reference, you often also share the materials you use alongside the sketchbook, which helps to how people how little you need to create a rich painting. What mediums and materials do you use in your daily paintings?

Jennifer: I primarily use gouache, but I’ll add acrylic, craft paints, pencil, gel pens. I paint directly onto the paper. Sometimes the painting bleeds through so I’ll just paint the next page a solid color and paint or draw over that. About 1/4 way through I started spraying them with fixative because they were rubbing off on one another. Now they stay pretty clean. The sketchbook is a $4.00 book from the Japanese store Muji. I want to start playing with other materials soon to mix it up a bit.

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Lisa: Tell us about how else you spend your days? You went to school for textile design. Do you still do that kind of work? What other illustration projects do you do?

Jennifer: This summer I was very busy illustrating a cake cookbook for Abrams books. It’s really fun, called Sitting in Bars with Cake. The publication date is next March. I’ve also been doing Lilla Rogers Bootcamp and just finished a terrarium piece of art for her Global Talent Search. I also license art for greeting cards and other products. My work tends to be very patterny, not surprising coming from my textile background but I’m not doing any actual fabric at this moment.

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Jennifer: What are your dream projects?

Lisa: Hmmm, I’d love to work with Anthropologie, I want to illustrate more books, and do some lifestyle editorial. I’d also love to have a gallery show. There are so many dreams. I also have always wanted to paint on ceramics. I don’t know where I can do that, I need to look into it!

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Thank you, Jennifer (aka Augustwren), for the lovely interview and for sharing your work & process! You can find Jennifer’s work here on her wesbite; you can follow her on Instagram (that’s the best place to follow her daily paintings); and you can follow her Facebook fan page here.

Next interview in this series coming soon: designer & photographer Troy Litten!

Have a great Thursday!

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Jaime Derringer

10/11/13

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Most of you know Jaime Derringer from her wildly popular blog Design Milk. But what you might not know about Jaime is that she is also a prolific and talented fine artist, who renders mostly abstract works, both on canvas and paper. Jaime and I have been friends for several years, and I was so excited when she began painting and drawing again in 2011 after a long hiatus. Her portfolio is both extensive and impressive. I am so impressed by Jaime’s constant creative prowess (at minimum she draws every single day, and paints as often as she can muster the energy) that I wanted to know both more about her process and how she manages her time. Jaime is also one of the warmest, smartest and most down-to-earth women I know. In the second of my interviews with people I admire, I present to you: Jaime Derringer!

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Lisa: You are the founder and editor of Design Milk, a mom to a toddler and a very prolific artist. How do you make time to make art each day?

Jaime: My time is very limited most days so making time for art every day is not easy. I challenged myself this year to draw A Shape A Day, which has kind of morphed into a drawing a day. I think I will be sad when it’s over, but also a little relieved. There are some days when I am tired and don’t want to draw. I have a drawing routine most evenings while I watch TV with my husband. Now that Breaking Bad and Dexter are over, we’ve caught up on Orange is The New Black and are now watching House of Cards in between our regular sitcoms and shows. Sometimes we watch terrible reality TV. Most of my drawings are somewhat repetitious, so there is room in my brain to absorb what’s going on with my shows and still pay attention to what my hands are doing but without the need to focus 100% on either.

When it comes to painting, I am very bad about fitting it in. Sometimes I will paint three paintings in one day and then not touch any paint for weeks, other times I lazily approach it painting a little bit here and a little there. Painting feels like much more of an effort to me and sometimes I think I’d rather be drawing… but every once in a while I get a spark. However, I have a feeling that I need to gain a better understanding of how to make paintings. I think there’s a process that I’ve yet to discover. Still waiting for my “ah-ha” moment.

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Lisa: You work in two different mediums and styles (and sometimes mix them): one is intricate line work and one is more painterly abstract painting. What do you get from the experience of working in each style? Are there days you crave one more than the other?

Jaime: Drawing is my first love. There is something about the control I get with a marker or pen in my hand that I just don’t get with a paintbrush. However, I am a bit of a perfectionist, so the messiness of paint is sometimes just what I need to push me out of my comfort zone. I have yet to find the perfect way to bring them together, but I have been playing around with watercolor and drawing together, which seems to be a happy marriage.

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Lisa: You took a break from painting and drawing for a few years and then after your daughter was born, you had a strong desire to start creating again. Tell us about that experience and how you got back into making art after abandoning it for so long.

Jaime: I don’t know where the desire to create again came from but it was like a fever. Sometime in 2011, it hit me that I wanted to draw all day. I would spend the day working, fantasizing about the quality time I could spend with my sketchbook that evening. Between a house, a new baby, a website redesign, and no maternity leave or vacation, I think my brain decided to force me to take a break. The problem I have now is that I am on fast forward—I’ve become very athletic about it, which has made me quite prolific, but there is a downside. It’s like I am trying to cram years and years of not making anything into a short period of time; it’s very hard to focus and not always feel the need to quickly finish up one thing on order to try something new. However, I am trying to use this desire to experiment to help me work through some buried psychological issues—lots of fun stuff is happening inside this brain of mine!

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Lisa: What advice do you have for people who can’t seem to get into the groove of making art on a regular basis? Do you have any tips for breaking through anxiety or self doubt?

Jaime: I think the best thing I did was to start my Shape A Day project. It was one small thing I could commit to doing every day. It gave me the opportunity to be as simplistic or as complicated as I wanted. In other words, if I only had time to draw a simple circle one day, it would still be OK. But that doesn’t mean that you have to do something EVERY DAY. You could commit to making art every week. Or commit to doing a number of works like my friend Megan, who is doing 100 paintings. It’s the small things that lead to more. For example, I’d discover a shape or pattern from my shape series and that would spawn a whole new set of shapes and end up working its way into my larger pieces. Forcing yourself to make something is actually very good for you—not only does it prevent procrastination but also it allows you to make art without too much need for inspiration or thinking. Sometimes we get way too caught up in looking for inspiration, so much so that we don’t produce quantity and quantity is a more effective way to move past perfectionism and ultimately produce your best work. One of my favorite quotes from Chuck Close is “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” I often do my best work when I’m not thinking about it at all.

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I constantly struggle with anxiety and self-doubt. The way I moved past it was to put everything out there on the internet with no regrets but that’s not to say I am no longer feel self-critical. This isn’t the first time I’ve had a website with my art on it. Previously, I pulled it down because I wasn’t proud of it. However, I have discovered that the healthiest part of being an artist is being able to put it all out there, even my sketchbooks and my mistakes. This might not be right for everyone, but it has certainly helped me embrace my process. Moreover, I feel like it’s also starting to help with my perfectionist issues… only time will tell! I am glad I digitized all of it because I get a lot of joy in going back to older work and seeing how I have changed or noticing small nuances in my work that are still present today.

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If you love Jaime’s work as much as I do, you can purchase it here in her Etsy Shop or here in her Webshop. She also has work available on Art.com and on Society6. Jaime posts most of her paintings and drawings here on her Instagram feed. You can read her fabulous design blog here.

Happy Friday, and thank you to Jaime.

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Heavy Hangs the Head: Interview with Taryn Hipp

09/18/13

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About six months ago, my friend Taryn emailed and asked if I could illustrate the cover of her book. Yes, she was writing a book, and it was coming out soon, and she wanted me to design the cover. Taryn and I met online back in 2008. She had sent me a friend request on Facebook. We had mutual friends. I didn’t know who she was, but randomly, I accepted her friendship. I turned out to be one of the best random decisions I’ve ever made.

For the past five years Taryn has inspired me endlessly. Early in our friendship, she seemed to be going through something huge, but I didn’t know exactly what it was at the time. When you only know someone on Facebook, and you know very little about them, you begin to piece together information that will give you a fuller picture of who they are. I knew Taryn worked at a record store. I knew we had similar taste in music. I knew she had a biting sense of humor, and a very soft side too. Taryn intrigued me. Her posts on social media were brave and revelatory. She was, I came to find out a couple years into our friendship, leaving her old life — a life of fear and addiction — and declaring a new life for herself, a life filled with love and promise, sobriety, school, hopes, dreams, and, eventually, this book. Over the years we’ve gotten to know each other better. Since 2008, Taryn has become a fixture in my life. I am continually inspired by her humanity and honesty.

So, back to Taryn’s book. It’s called Heavy Hangs the Head, and you can see the cover I designed above. I am quite proud of it, though it was all Taryn’s vision. The book is a memoir. It’s about Taryn’s journey from anxiety-ridden child to delinquent teenager to divorced alcoholic to who she is today. In her own words, “Heavy Hangs the Head is my journey towards learning to overcome the things that hold me back & accepting that sometimes, it’s ok to not move at all.”

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{Taryn celebrates the launch of her book.}

I eagerly read Heavy Hangs the Head when it came out and realized immediately I had to interview Taryn about the book. It is a brave, gritty and honest memoir. As with most books I read, I had to know more. (Incidentally, this is the first in a series of interviews I’m going to be launching on this blog with artists and writers I admire. Stay tuned for more interviews over the next few months.)

Lisa: I love the title of the book so much — Heavy Hangs the Head — where does it come from?

Taryn: It’s actually a line from the movie Cry-Baby. The main character is crying over being heartbroken & her grandmother says, “Heavy hangs the head that last night wore the crown.” During my drinking days I went to sleep the queen of the prom only to wake up feeling exactly the opposite.

Lisa: Heavy Hangs the Head (to me) was much more about your search for stable ground. loving relationships and meaning in your life as much as it was a story about getting sober. For example, you don’t talk too much about the process of getting sober and what that was like, but you do talk a lot about your relationships and how they shaped your life. Tell us about how you decided what aspects of your journey to write about?

Taryn: When I started working on the book my goal was to give a little “back story” of my life and then write about getting sober but as I began to write I realized that the “little” back story was a huge part of why I was even writing the book. Everything that has happened in my life led me to this place, the good and the bad. It took me a long time to see that. I try to live without regrets and I think that my search for stable ground, as you say, has been and continues to be the driving force in my life. But it’s not just stable ground really, it’s more the ability to remain stable when the ground shakes. Ya know? Before I got sober I couldn’t do that. I would begin to lose my footing and immediately turn to alcohol to self-medicate. When I was going through my divorce I had this hole inside of me that ached constantly and it was accompanied by this terrible voice in my head that just wouldn’t stop making me miserable. The alcohol was able to “fix” both of those things. Obviously, it was more of a paper towel duct taped on a wound than a bandage but the process of writing the book was my bandage and the healing process has been extraordinary.

Lisa: You’ve written a lot of zines but never before a book! And you wrote it relatively quickly. You worked with a small press called Sweet Candy Press. How did the relationship with Sweet Candy begin? What was the writing process like for you as a first-timer? How did you get yourself to sit down and write?

Taryn: I’ve known Sage from Sweet Candy for a long time because of zines. When I mentioned I wanted to possibly write a book she was like “Yes, do it and I’ll put it out”–just like that. It happened so fast. We’re both really into self-publishing and the Do-It-Yourself way of life so it was a new experience for both of us. I had no idea how to write a book so I actually went to the library and checked out a dozen or so books about the subject (none of which I actually ended up reading because it just became too overwhelming). I “took the summer off” from school, and writing the book became my job. I had a routine that involved my porch and a lot of coffee and a dedicated amount of hours per day to writing. But the subject matter was so intense and sometimes really triggering that it became difficult to stick to my routine. I would go days without working on the book, finding other things that were suddenly way more important. Eventually Sage would step in and give me these epic pep talks that really helped get me back on track. I have no idea what big publishers are like but I doubt they answer text messages in the middle of the night with words of encouragement like “You can do this. I believe in you.”

Lisa: The book is really raw and really comes through in your voice, as if we are reading your journal. Was there an editing process? If so, what was it like? Or did you want to stay as true as possible to your voice?

Taryn: I am a zine maker. I am the first person to tell you that. I don’t know how to write a book. I only know how I wrote my book. The editing process was basically me writing for hours at a time for days and then putting it in a Google Doc and asking my best friend or my boyfriend to read it and tell me if it made any sense. A few times I felt like maybe the story was getting off track and I asked friends to give me their opinion or tell me what they wanted to know after reading what I had written so far. I didn’t really give anyone a choice though, it was more like “Read this. Is it totally stupid?” So, I had help throughout the entire process. Once the book was “finished” there were a few people who went through it and we made changes together. I didn’t want it to be in anyone’s voice but my own. No one could tell my story the way I needed it to be told and that’s why it reads like a zine because that’s how I write.

Lisa: What did you learn from writing this book? About yourself or the writing process? Any motivation to write another? What are you working on now?

Taryn: I joked last year that I was learning to be “more brave” by stepping out of my comfort zone and doing things I wouldn’t normally do. I think this book was the final step in that journey. Not everyone will enjoy the book or even care about the book but it exists to show the world that I could do it. My life got all mixed up a few years back, and I truly didn’t think I could get through it. Like, I sometimes will stop myself from being in a bummer mood and just remember where I was four years ago. Writing this book has given me a lot of perspective and it has shown me that it’s okay to be an emotional person, to seek out help, to be vulnerable.

I’m always writing. I actually put out a new issue of my zine, Lady Teeth while working on the book. There is another issue of that in the works also and I’ve been writing a lot of short fiction that may turn into a collection. I had an idea to write stories based on the women in my life and it sort of grew from that. I’m also back in school now that the summer is over so that keeps me pretty busy. I didn’t start college until I was 31. It was never something I really even considered but I’m so glad I did because I really enjoy it. I also think the fact that I am a Psych major had a lot to do with me writing a book like Heavy Hangs the Head. I’ve been approached about speaking to high school kids about my experiences with drugs and alcohol which is not something I had ever considered but I am excited about.

Lisa: If you could summarize the 2-3 people and/or circumstances that turned your life around, what would you say?

Taryn: I spent a long time being very angry at the world and feeling sorry for myself. I didn’t understand why certain things happened to me, and I felt like the whole world was out to get me. Eventually I had to realize that I was self-sabotaging and making excuses. My life sucked because I wasn’t doing what I needed to do to make it not suck. So when I got charged in 2010 for public drunkenness, that was a huge turning point for me. I began to heal and grow and gain perspective. My life has always been really special, I just never bothered to focus on anything but the negative which wasn’t just unfair to me but to the people who loved me. My book is dedicated to my sisters, Jennifer and Veronica and that’s because they have stood by and supported me through everything. They are the reason I am the woman I am today because they have loved me unconditionally, believed in me even when I didn’t, and never turned their back on me. That is something everyone deserves and once I realized that and embraced it, my life turned around and I started loving it.

You can purchase Heavy Hangs the Head here, where you can also check out & purchase Taryn’s awesome zine collection.

Happy Wednesday!

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